Peg Leg Shankar doesn’t fit many people’s idea of a terrorist. Known as a cut-throat pirate driven more by greed than creed, his presence on the region’s wanted lists rank him alongside petty criminals, drug dealers and murderers.
The native Sri Lankan, however, earned his terror stripes with the Tamil Tigers and by allegedly running a network of people smugglers and human traffickers across the Indian Ocean, through Southeast Asia to Australia and in some cases as far east as Canada.His spruikers scour the Tamil refugee camps of India looking for potential cargo. More than 70,000 people live in more than 100 camps after fleeing the civil war that consumed Sri Lanka for decades, before ending just two years ago.
It was then that the 38-year-old Shankar—aka Shanmugasundaram Kanthaskaran—shifted from gun running for the rebel Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) to people running.
Details about Shankar’s shady past and present are vague. What’s known from a range of media and official sources like the Sri Lankan government is that Shankar was a member of the Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the Tamil Tigers, and his leg was amputated after a clash with government forces.He then moved to Britain, where he obtained citizenship and the passport he travels under, and from London obtained a ship called the Princess Easwary and began smuggling weapons to Sri Lanka from North Korea.
The ship was registered in Cambodia—back then a source country for Tamil Tiger arms buyers and traditionally a regular stopover for Tiger rebels transiting around Southeast Asia.When transporting military hardware through Indonesia to Sri Lanka in May 2009, Shankar heard the civil war was over and that Tamil rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead.
His crew dumped their cargo and Shankar changed the name of his vessel to Ocean Lady, tied-up with a Canadian named Ravi Shanker and went into the people smuggling business, plotting an initial trip to Canada’s west coast.
During a recent assignment through southern India Ispoke with Tamil refugees from the camps. An overwhelming majority, including G. Amarnath, have no intention of hopping a boat for Australia or Canada, nor are they heeding calls from Colombo urging them to go home.
Tall, well-presented and slightly awkward, 29-year-old Amarnath chooses his words carefully.He has lived in a camp at Kottapaty since 1985, along with another 400 families who share communal bathrooms.
‘We can't get big jobs,’ Amarnath says in broken English, referring to better employment with the Indian government. He adds their refugee status restricts them to menial jobs that pay little.The established family ties here are as strong as the knowledge of the local fishing grounds and the farming communities near the shorelines that enable a hand to mouth existence.
India has been home for as long as Amarnath can remember and he wants to stay. But Indian citizenship isn’t forthcoming, and while he’s not personally interested in moving abroad he estimates at least another 100 people are currently plotting a trip to Australia or Canada.
The spruikers have also been through nearby Odiyur, a small thatched-hut village where ethnic Tamils live and can call India home. Among them is G. Poongotha, a very angry middle-aged mother. After an agent travelled through her village extolling the virtues of working abroad her son decided to go to Canada.
The total cost was in excess of $10,000. They borrowed from expensive money lenders, paying 10 percent interest, mortgaged their patch of dirt for a bank loan, sold-off the family's gold and borrowed from friends.
‘After that nothing happened,’ she said. ‘When we complained and demanded our money back we were threatened…It's not safe.’
The Ocean Lady sailed from India to Malaysia where they stopped for supplies then sailed on to British Columbia where they arrived in October 2009 with 76 Sri Lankans claiming refugee status.Another trip was organized soon after, only this time a larger vessel—The MV Sun Sea—was deployed andsailed to Thailand after a crackdown by authorities in Malaysia prompted people smugglers and human traffickers to rethink their strategy.
Passengers flew to Bangkok from where they boarded the freighter anchored in the Gulf of Thailand. It then moved to the southern town of Songklah, where more passengers were ferried aboard via fishing boats. It then set sail.
The arrival of 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in August last year disturbed the Canadian authorities and a handful of officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have since been rebased in Thailand where, along with Thais and counterparts from Australia, they are attempting to disrupt Shankar and other people smugglers.The objectives are to prevent future voyages from being organized while chasing down lower-level but hands-on members of the crews, then arresting the masterminds behind the rackets.
Police believe at least one Canadian bound ship and others destined for Australia have been stopped, while some people smugglers have been arrested or forced to move to back into Malaysia or even north into Laos. Thailand has also made it tougher for Sri Lankans to get visas to enter the country, resulting in a sharp drop in Tamil arrivals.
The RCMP and Australian Federal Police have their own intelligence centres that collect and analyze leads to be followed up on. A month ago, Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Peg Leg Shankar, described as ‘a British man’ and said he was wanted for ‘people smuggling, trafficking and illegal immigration’ and ‘terrorism.’
It declined to comment further.
This, however, is unlikely to persuade Peg Leg Shankar into ceasing his activities or force him into hiding. He made about $1.6 million for the MV Sun Sea voyage alone.